The Spanish Teacher with the French name

I taught middle school English for one year in 1995. One year is all it took to run me off. I was good at the subject but not at the kids. I enjoyed the kids but not stuffing poetry into the kids. Note confiscation was my area of expertise. Reading the notes during lunch break was my joy. Laughing at the contents of the notes and sharing them with the teacher friend next door–well, I should have been fired. 
Ironic, really. 
Because it hadn’t been so long since I’d been the one pushing the pen across the paper to create the masterpiece that got confiscated. Or almost confiscated, I should say. 

It’s funny what kids think they are getting away with. Every kid tries it and every kid thinks they’ve escaped notice. I certainly thought so. My sophomore year in high school led me to Spanish II under the tutelage of Josephine Bourgeois. I was immediately confused upon walking into the room, because her name was Bourgeois. She was the Spanish teacher with the French name. But she confirmed we were in the right place and launched straight into a language we remembered none of after a long summer break.

I knew from the first 6 minutes that I was in for a ride with this teacher. I wonder if she knew the same thing with me. We were made for each other. And she was smarter than I was willing to admit.

Mrs. Bourgeois was small enough to fit in my backpack and had a voice like loose gravel. I don’t know if she smoked. I don’t remember smelling it on her, but she sure sounded like the habit. Her eyes told stories and held secrets and I loved walking into that classroom every day. I walked in daily, trailing my chorus buddy, Cathy Thursby. We were a problem. We were a problem in chorus and a bigger problem in Spanish. Mrs. Bourgeois kept those eyes on us far more than we wanted. And though we didn’t get caught for everything we committed, I’m now convinced she just got worn out and let about half of it go.

As with my 3rd grade brush with the Citizenship police, my problem in Spanish was talking. Cathy and I loved to talk. Any topic would do, as we were not picky. But our favorite topic was other students and the teacher herself. She was funny. She said funny things in two languages. We liked responding to those funnies under our breath. In English. Or Pig Latin.

“Miss White!” She would call from the front of the classroom, so loud it would sometimes be followed by a cough. One would think that the frequency with which I got in trouble would take the edge off the fear, but I never got over the panic of hearing my name pop like an expletive. My name was always followed by a punitive statement. The most common of these was a seat move. There were 3 empty desks in that classroom that she used to shift her problem children around.

“Why don’t you grace this seat with su topetazo (that was my butt) and make this your desk from now on…” she would say, pointing to my new location. I always gathered my things with an air of shame and moved away, leaving my cohort behind. Soon into the year, I learned that Mrs. Bourgeois was a tad soft on her enforcement of “from now on.” The next day, I would return to my old desk in front of Cathy and no one would say a word about it. I fancied that she forgot. But as I’m solidly standing in middle age now, I’m certain she forgot nothing. She knew I snuck back to my roots. And she just let me do it, because she was a little bit awesome that way.

When Cathy and I weren’t having terribly conspicuous secret conversations about inappropriate gossip, we were writing those conversations down. Note writing was a religion in high school. We were very religious. One day, Mrs. Bourgeois was on fire about something, telling animated stories about pet squirrels that she raised to adulthood. I was amused enough to put some commentary into a note, along with a rather unflattering picture of this beloved teacher. I was putting the finishing touches on my picture in gloppy ball point ink when I heard that name again.

“MISS WHITE!” Oh, sweet Davy Crockett. Busted. I looked up from my sure downfall. “I think you’re working on something I’d like to see.” Oh goodness me. Oh no.

“No, Senora, I’m not,” I said politely, trying to throw some Spanish in for grace.

“Oh, I think you are,” she said again, smiling with every wrinkle in her face. “I know I want to see it. I think the class might want to see it too.” She paused and addressed the class. “Class? Would you like me to read what Miss White has been working on so diligently?” Well, of course they said yes. Every person in that room was rooting for a bloodbath. I was shaking my head no. This time, my confidence was gone. I was cornered. Miss Thursby couldn’t save me. Mrs. Bourgeois was sharpening her sword. It was over.

“OK, class she doesn’t seem to want to share her work today. So Miss White, you have two options. One is, pass the note and we have a class read-along. The other is, you eat it.”

“Eat it?” I asked. “Like, swallow it?” I asked, stalling.

“That’s the typical result of eating something,” she answered.

I looked at my picture. And my commentary. And back at her. There was only one viable option. I crumpled up the note, inwardly grieving that Miss Thursby would never see such a glorious and artistic display of wit and whimsy, and shoved it into my mouth.

“All the way in,” she said, enjoying the show. I pushed until the sharp corners poked past the roof of my mouth and I gagged, chewing as I went.

I chewed. And I chewed. And I chewed. I was drooling blue Bic like a dog on his deathbed. Mrs. Bourgeois crossed her arms and sighed with the satisfaction of a champion.

There were still 15 minutes left in that period. 15 minutes to eat note. Parts of the note disintegrated and made their way down to my stomach. Parts of it just stayed in my mouth until I could spit into a bathroom trashcan after the bell rang. But the words of that note hung deep in my consciousness for years. 30 years.

I hadn’t thought about it much until my brother called last week to tell me he had been reading the Tallahassee obituaries and Jo Bourgeois had passed this life on January 4. Never mind that my brother reads obituaries from other towns. That’s another post for another day. When he sent me the link, I sat down from what I was doing and read the life story of this woman that had the number of every student that walked through her door. This woman who could wield words like weapons but was as warm as a patch of sunlight on the June grass. This woman who literally made me eat my words. I felt a tinge of sadness. Followed by a surge of happiness. Which ended in my pulling out a piece of notebook paper and writing a quick note in blue ballpoint pen.

“Dear Mrs. Bourgeois,

Thank you. I’m sorry. Rest in peace, mi Maestra.

Love,

Miss White”

The thing about teachers

Good teachers teach. Great teachers transform.
~Queen Rania of Jordan

Teachers are the launching pad for every other career in the world. I don’t think I realized until recently how extraordinary that is. Every person goes through the third grade, and Civics, and Algebra I. I may never hire a lawyer (joke’s on you, I have a lawyer RIGHT NOW  in place to rescue an unnamed person from having points on their license). I may never cross paths with an actuary or use a massage therapist. But I’ve had teachers. Lots of them.

I was raised in the public schools in Tallahassee, Florida. If you add up the 13 years of primary/secondary/high and then 4 years of college, I found myself in the classrooms of roughly 60+ teachers. Of those 60+ teachers, I can remember the teachings, the voices, the mannerisms, and the quirks of maybe 20. Of those 20, I would say 10 were great. And of those 10, a very small handful changed my life.

It’s not a small thing to change a life.

Susan Upchurch was my 3rd grade teacher at Kate Sullivan Elementary. I loved her. She was young, blonde, single, and excited about her job. I sat at a black-topped, 2-person table with Gabe Whatshisname. Gabe was my friend. He was everybody’s friend. He was the kind of kid that showed up on picture day wearing his cub scout uniform. The most notable thing about my uniform wearing, friendly tablemate was that he was a talker. I was a friendly kid, too, and it would be rude not to speak when spoken to. So when Gabe spoke to me, I spoke back. That’s what you do. Gabe did what Gabe had to do. I did what I had to do. And Ms. Upchurch did what she had to do. Which was to give Gabe and me each an “N” in citizenship on our report cards for the first 9 weeks. An N in citizenship? I was a model citizen. A friendly citizen, even. A slightly social citizen.

N is the 14th letter of the alphabet, the third in the LMNO series, and necessary for spelling all kinds of really neat words like Nefarious and Nincompoop and Nap. But an N was not to be seen in any column of any report card of any person that lived in my house. For any reason. Ever.

My mother was livid. And when my mother got livid, she could be quite scary. I think Ms. Upchurch got an earful of why I didn’t deserve that N, why it was all Gabe’s fault, and where I would and would not be sitting in that classroom from then on.

I moved seats the very next day. I don’t remember who my new seatmate was. I do remember missing Gabe (what WAS his last name?) and his gregarious spirit. I also remember that I didn’t talk so much after that.

None of that impacted me in 3rd grade all that much. I continued to love the classroom, the kids, and the teacher.

But one day, I remember loving the work. That day is a full color, 8×10 glossy memory for me.
That day, from the front of that small, square room with the brown indoor/outdoor carpet, Ms. Upchurch opened a brand new door and stepped aside so we could catch a glimpse of a universe that was completely unfamiliar and 100% glorious to me. She taught us creative writing. I’d always been a reader, but had never given a thought to the authors that labored over the books I got lost in. But that day, following her lesson on creative writing, she gave an assignment. Write a story. Illustrate it if you want to, but not if you don’t.

Write a story. Wield words. Create. Mmm. Yes, please.

I did write a story. I think it was pretty dumb. So dumb my mother, who saved everything, who saved even my 3rd grade class picture, did not save it. But the story itself was not important. That lesson changed me. She changed me.

I walked up the street from the bus stop that afternoon, thinking about my story with every step. I thought about settings and characters and really dumb plot developments. When I walked through the back door of my house, my mom was in the kitchen. I hopped up onto the counter next to the kitchen sink while she poured me some Koolaid and asked me about my day.

“I know what I want to be when I grow up now,” I said. My mother looked over in surprise.

“Oh, yeah? What’s that?” she asked.

“I want to be a writer,” I said.

“Huh,” she said. “Alright then. You can.”

I don’t know what I expected her to say. I don’t know that anyone believed me entirely. And I’m sure everyone expected me to change my mind a few hundred times. But I didn’t. Not once. I never wavered. I took every lit class I could get my hands on. I got a degree in English with emphasis on Creative Writing. And I tried to find jobs that involved writing, even if it wasn’t writing fiction. Words were, and still are, my jam.

Ms. Upchurch unwittingly set me on a path I’m still tripping along today. If it hadn’t been her, would it have been someone else? Mr. Beurkley in 4th grade or Mrs. Turner in 5th? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. All I know is, it was her. She set me there. She opened the gate. She lit the match.

I wish I had told her while I had the chance. She died of cancer many, many years ago, still a relatively young woman. I hope someone along the way told her that she was a game changer. A life transformer. A light.

I hope all teachers know this. I hope my kids’ teachers know this. And if I don’t tell them–if I get too busy, or preoccupied, or forgetful, or lazy, or timid–I hope they’ll somehow know. They need to know.

Ms. Upchurch is long gone from my life, but her light did not snuff out. Because she passed the flame to a weird little kid with hair like chewed up steel wool. That kid peeked into a universe she presented and tiptoed through the door with streaks of light trailing behind her.

Thank you, Susan Upchurch Wager, and all great teachers, everywhere.

The Failing at Life Club

I have a friend, who shall remain nameless, who is my equal in all the wrong ways. We are screw ups. Dimwits. Dunderheads. Oafs. Doltish.

You get the idea.

We are not usually stupid at the same time, which is helpful. Because if we were stupid in the same ways at the same times, we’d either be in prison or the hospital. We trade off stupidity.

For instance, one day we had decided to meet another friend at the new Chuy’s that had opened 20 minutes north of us. My nameless friend–ok, I have to name her–we’ll call her Sybil. It would be too confusing to continue discussing her as a nameless friend. So, Sybil was coming from work. I was coming from home. And our other friend was already close to Chuy’s and just wanted a 5 minutes heads up so she could go get us a table. As I entered the highway from the onramp near my house, I saw Sybil go zipping by. Well, look at that, I thought to myself. Us on the highway at the exact same time and place. What a good thing.

It was not a good thing.

I called her from the bluetooth in my car.

“Hey,” I said. “I’m directly behind you in traffic. Do you know where you’re going?” I can’t believe I even asked it. She never knows where she’s going. The fact that I had to ask her means that I was worse off than she was.

“I have Chuy’s plugged into my gps and it says we are about 17 minutes away,” she answered.

“OK,” I said. “I’ll follow you then.” 17 minutes seemed too soon, but she was so confident. I wasn’t thinking. Because sometimes I just don’t. And I followed Sybil. The first thing that seemed suspect was that we took an exit that was not what either of us thought we should take for Chuy’s. But we went with it, because it seemed a viable alternative route. Then we turned on a major road. Still workable. But the final turn was onto a street called something like Nantucket. It was a subdivision. With stucco houses and cul-de-sacs. We were going further and further into it. Sybil called me.

“What are the odds this is going to lead to Chuy’s?” she asked.

“I think 0%,” I replied. She pulled up in front of a house and came to a complete stop.

“It says we’re here.” she said. “I think we are in front of a house that belongs to a Mr. Chuy.”

We were late to lunch. Really late.

After hearing about some of this, Sybil’s daughter texted my daughter and said, “I think your mom and my mom should start a Failing at Life Club. But I don’t know who would be President.”

When she spilled soup and mayonnaise all over her car interior, she moved into first place. Her car smelled like the inside of a cow’s stomach for weeks.

When I ran out of gas AND ran my car battery dead, I had to spend 3 hours in the August heat while my teenage son attempted to rescue me. I got a text from Sybil that said, “Guess who just LEAPT into first place?”

We trade off. It’s fun if you aren’t into success.

Recently we both started following the blog posts of Sean Dietrich. He is the reason I got back to writing. Because of that, I thought I would just see what his speaking schedule for the year was and discovered he’d be in north Florida on January 10. I texted Sybil and asked how insane it would be to drive up for it. I expected her to say very insane and that would be that. Instead she took a day off work and said “I’m in.” This was a great idea.

Unfortunately no adults were along to supervise. No one with any gps skills. No one with good karma. Or good fortune.

We took off today about noon. I had a perfect plan laid out: (1) Drive to Tallahassee, (2) Check into a room, (3) Eat at Barnaby’s Family Inn (best pizza ever in the world), (4) Drive to Marianna with 2 minutes to spare.

It was all going so well that I began to get a little too leisurely with my time. We had an hour and 20 minute drive to Marianna and needed to be there by 7. We didn’t leave Barnaby’s until 5:35 and I took the scenic route.

We were somewhere between Quincy and Marianna when the skies blazoned a burnt sienna and the pine trees stood up proud and black against them. It was dramatic.

“Looks like the Lion King,” Sybil said.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

I was getting nervous about time. I had done everything obnoxious in my power to shave a couple of minutes off our time. The skies were a thick charcoal now and we were zipping along unfamiliar roads in a town neither of us knew. We passed a Po Folks in town, both lamenting that we hadn’t known there was still one Po Folks in America still serving food. This one had only the “olks” lit up on the sign but I bet you can still drink sodas from a mason jar. Damage from Hurricane Michael was piled 2 stories high along the sides of residential streets in the form of debris and splintered trees. Even in the dark, we could see it. Soon we began to see signs for Chipola College. We’re here, I thought. We should make it just in time.

It was 6:58 when I whipped into a parking space and took off running for the Center for the Arts building. I was hoping Sybil was behind me but I wasn’t waiting for her. We ran into one building. Clearly not the center for the arts. Where are the people at this college? The Student Center looked like it had been boarded up since 2015. We ran across a courtyard into a neighboring building. Also not the Center for the Arts but there was a guy who looked official standing inside.

“Center for the Arts?” I asked.

“This is my first day on the job,” he shrugged. Of course it is, I thought, as I turned on my heel. We ran around another group of buildings to a building that was full of life and light. The Library. I didn’t see anyone reading or studying. There were two women inside. One was at the check out counter. The other was restocking bookshelves.I ran over to the check-out lady and whispered, “Center for the Arts?” In retrospect, it is very weird to ask for directions in broken german shepherd.

“Excuse me?” the lady asked.

“We are looking for the Center for the Arts,” I repeated in sentence form.

“You here for the program?” she asked in an accent so thick you could have spread it on toast.

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.

“OK,” she said. “Where’s your car?” I pointed in the general direction, but we were nowhere near the car at this point. She started giving us driving directions and the whole thing got very bogged down. There were three different street names, a gym, a series of parking lots, and then the Center for the Arts.

“Ok, thank you,” I said. “Just to clarify…you think we should drive there? We shouldn’t walk it?”

“Oh, no no,” she said with emphasis. “Definitely drive.”

“Too far, too far,” the stocking librarian now chimed in agreement.

Sigh. We thanked them and took off running. Out the library door. Out into the dark, sparsely populated campus, toward the car. We cut through a field between buildings. I was in a full on sprint, but became aware that I was hunched over like I had a set of twins on my back. Sybil was running in high heeled boots and rolled her ankle right out of the gate. I left her in my hunchback dust. She was calling after me. I looked at my watch.

“It’s 7:12. Now we are REALLY late,” I mourned. We made it back to the car and tried to remember the strange combination of turns and streets and parkings lots. At precisely 7:20, we busted through the fancy glass doors of the Center for the Arts and ran past a lobby full of old people sitting on their walkers, not really milling or talking to each other. Why were there people sitting in the lobby when we were so late? I ran up to the box office window with my tickets displayed on my phone.

“Do we show these to you? We are so late!” I heaved, leaning over the counter.

“You’re fine. It hasn’t started yet,” one of the girls said. She had a call security look on her face.

“But it’s 7:20,” I said in disbelief.

“Eastern?” She said. Eastern. What’s she talking about?

Oh. Eastern. We were now in central time, which apparently happened 30 minutes ago. My phone didn’t get the memo. Sybil was leaned over laughing hysterically. I was still in the middle of a really stupid conversation with the box office girl. We just drove from. Busted our butts. Eastern time. You know what? Never mind. Walking away.

So instead of being 20 minutes late, we were 40 minutes early. It was a win for punctuality, but a tie for the loss in the Failing at Life Club.

The event itself far exceeded my expectations. Sean Dietrich was funny, entertaining, interesting, and had a voice I would gladly let sing me into heaven.

After the show, we waited in line to get our books signed. Sean was friendly and warm to everyone in line to meet him, including us.

He talked to me about writing, about self publishing. He told me to email him and he’d offer what he could. When I mentioned we had driven 5.5 hours for his show, his eyes got huge, he ran over to his book table and grabbed one of every book except the one I was holding and returned, signing them all.

When I busted into the auditorium tonight, I wanted a good experience. A show. When I walked out of building, I had been given an amazing experience, 6 free books, a hug, a couple of selfies where I am still inexplicably hunched over as I had been all evening, a little lesson on time zones for future travels, and two fistfuls of hope.

I want to write.

And as long as it’s not my turn to fail at life, maybe I’ll give it a shot.



The Siren Song of Salt Water

Now that I am well into my adult life–hateful people might even say my middle aged years–, I can look back on my childhood and identify the things and places and people who fused and molded my soul. These are who I am. I look at my children and wonder what it will be for them some day. Please don’t let it be Roblox or Fortnite. One thing’s for certain, it will not be for them what it was for me. Their childhood has been vastly different from mine.

For me, it’s chocolate sheet cake and softball and St. Teresa and flying over someone else’s ravine on a tire swing I shouldn’t have borrowed and church in a bad neighborhood and milkshakes on Wednesday nights and a neighborhood full of kids and fried fish and cheese grits and Mama and Florida State football games where we brought our own hot dogs and sodas wrapped in newspaper.

And water skiing.

There was so much about growing up at St. Teresa that I loved. This kind of childhood almost requires a quiet reverence when I tiptoe through the memories. It was sacred. Author Diane Roberts described St. Teresa as an “unglamorous colony of old cottages, named for Teresa Hopkins, granddaughter of Florida’s last territorial governor.” Unglamorous. Yep. Colony. Absolutely. And sacred. I think that was the Saint in St. Teresa.

There were only ever two places I slept when I was at the beach: the porch bed and my bed. My bed was in a room with my grandmother, up against the front wall that had a window out to the screen porch. That window was always open unless it stormed and the rain was blowing in from the fury. There were some strange little nautical curtains that hung throughout that cottage and I would memorize the ship types and titles when I was either waking up or drifting off. I was wishing I had a snippet of the fabric just now and did a google search on “vintage nautical ships fabric.” A full bolt of it arrives next Tuesday. Thanks, Internet.

No matter where I chose to sleep the night before, the waking up was always the same. My eyes popped open, coaxed by the sound of the gulf, the smell of the salt, and the thought of a new day’s endless escapades. Once I realized that I was at the beach and it was morning, I always sat straight up with a little surge of excitement and looked out to the water.

What mood was the water in today? Was it overcast and choppy, forecasting a day of body surfing or playing in the creek? Or was it…glass?

If it was glass, we were going skiing. I was always in the mood to ski, whether the water was or not. Sometimes we overrode the mood of the water, skiing in waves designed more for chewing us up and spitting us out. And sometimes my dad managed to talk us out of our begging, when the weather wasn’t even close to right. But more often than not, we got what we begged for, because the truth was that Dad wanted to go, too.

A boat was always anchored in the water, just out front of our little piece of the beach. We were bargain boat people. We never once bought a boat new. Where’s the adventure in that? Our motors were usually about a 75 or 80 hp. Evinrude 150s would go zipping by us sometimes, showing off, but we did just fine with our boats, switching them out when the current one died or sank in a storm. I have a whole trough of stories about this topic. I’m not sure I want to slog through the trauma. Perhaps another day.

One summer when my brother was 10 and I was 8, my dad decided it was time we learned to water ski. Actually, I think he decided it was time for my brother to learn. But I couldn’t watch the success of that whole shebang and not invite myself to the party. So we both learned the same day. I remember a lot of the advice we were given: bend slightly at the elbows and knees, do not lean back or stand straight up, do not let go of the rope until you’ve lost a ski or consciousness, thumbs up to go faster, thumbs down to go slower, and hang on tight. I remember seeing my dad at the wheel. I remember seeing my brother in the boat cheering me on. I remember the roar of the motor as my dad gunned it to get me up on those skis. And then, my memory flips to a feeling of abject terror as I realized I was trying to slide around on little slabs of varnished wood atop some very deep water where sharks eat people whole.
Then I fell.
Hard.
I did let go of the rope. With my legs dangling for the sharks, I leaned back on the buoyancy of my life jacket and fished around for my skis that had gone flying. I did not like the falling process. Whose idea was this?

My dad circled back around to bring me the ski rope again. He told me I had stood up too fast. Let the boat pull you up, he said. Get a 150, I said back. I didn’t really. That’s just the kind of sassy stuff I say now. Precisely why I worry about what my kids will think as they look back on their lives.

When the boat roared into life the second time, pulling me behind it, I sat back against those skis and waited. Five seconds later, I was up and gliding along a smooth, slick sheet of the kindest, most welcoming water I’ve ever known. I made a friend that day in the gulf. I discovered a freedom in water skiing that I have rarely experienced anywhere else. Snow skiing is similar, but I’m so bad on snow skis. It’s hard to feel free when you are constantly worrying about death.

I haven’t skied in 15 years. And the last time I did, it wasn’t on the gulf. It was in a lake. With lots of people watching. Behind a Johnson 225. Did you get that? It was a 225 horse power. The power of 225 horses were trying to pull a 30-something out of the water. It was practically a space shuttle. I was trying to get up on one ski because that’s how I skied after I got better at the sport. And I got up by dragging my left foot in the water, while my right foot anchored the ski. Right leg did the work. Left leg tagged along until just the right moment. When I was good and up, I would slide my left foot into the back pocket and off we would go. That’s how we did it. That’s how I was trying to do it behind the Johnson 225.

That day on the lake, my normal process wasn’t working for me. I fell 8 times trying to make this happen for myself. 8 inglorious, dramatic faceplants. In front of a large Labor Day audience. With a boat driver I didn’t know very well. When I was beyond frustrated and ready to give it up as “too old and out of shape,” the boat driver circled around and leaned over the side of the boat to me.

“Put your left foot in the ski now. Let me pull you up with both feet in,” he said.

“That’s not how I ever did it,” I argued. “I always dragged my other foot.”

“Just trust me,” he persuaded. “Do it my way one time.”

I shrugged. Fair enough. We’ll do it his way.

With a nod from me, he gunned that Johnson 225 with me attached to that ski in two places. I was launched so fast I was reporting on future events before we got back to the shore. I wish we had done that 8 near-death-experiences ago.

So that’s what a 225 feels like.

Don’t tell my dad.

You Are Here

Today is the first day I have struggled with my self-imposed writing schedule. After 18 blog posts, I finally reached a point where I don’t feel like I have anything useful or interesting to say. That won’t stop me. But it probably should.

On Saturday, I found myself at Disney Springs with my daughter, her friend, and my friend. If you have no idea what Disney Springs is, it’s basically a big Disney outdoor mall. There are shops, restaurants, and entertainment. We found our way there fine. We walked in from the parking lot fine, too. But that’s where fine ended. There was a Directory within 15 paces of the first entrance into the place. We stood there at the large electronic blueprint of the mall and tried to find a place to eat. A Disney employee, Joe from San Jose, saw that we looked lost so he walked over to help us. We wanted a burger. He recommended Deluxe Burger.

“Great!” I said, “Where is that?” Joe’s expression darkened a little and he leaned over our shoulders to look at the directory.

“I’m not sure,” he answered. He then proceeded to give us some directions. Apparently this was not his regular post.

His directions were bad.

We stopped at two different directories between Joe from San Jose and our eventual and somewhat accidental arrival at Deluxe Burger. I’m happy to report that my burger was well worth our wandering. When we finished eating, my daughter’s friend wanted to go into Alex and Ani. So again, we found ourselves at another directory. Each time we stopped at a new directory, our location would be marked by a large dot with “YOU ARE HERE” next to it. You would think that would be helpful. Somehow it wasn’t. I mean, how do they know which direction I’m pointing? Am I facing the directory staring at it when it says “YOU ARE HERE?” Or am I facing away from it about to walk away? Am I leaning left or leaning right? Because it makes a difference, people.

It is impossible at this point to tell you how far we walked or how many directories we consulted before finding Alex and Ani on Saturday. When we did find it, I turned ever so slightly to my left and was standing at Deluxe Burger. In case you are slower than I am, which isn’t likely, that means that we were a hopscotch game away from Alex and Ani when we walked out of Deluxe Burger. We literally could have thumped a pebble with our non-dominant hand and hit the front door of the place. But we walked a good mile to get there.

This made me think about my life just a little bit and the wheels I sometimes spin. Here’s the best I have today:

  1. It’s important to know where you are before you can get where you’re going.
  2. If you get lost, ask for help from someone who knows (aka, not Joe from San Jose).
  3. Do not be afraid to ask and keep asking. We are here to help each other.
  4. If you find yourself on the other end of things, and you have the map or the answer or the money or the time, look for someone wandering or struggling and help them. You have something that somebody else needs, guaranteed.
  5. Just keep walking. There are only so many wrong turns you can make before you eventually make the right one.

She was cold. And doesn’t like cameras. But she liked Deluxe Burger. It’s all joy…

Seeing it Through

The closer I get to setting a 5:45 alarm and everything that goes along with sending kids to school again, the more short of breath I seem to become. I dread jumping back into the fray. The last two weeks have been lovely. In preparation for the fray, I was reading an article about how to deescalate and defuse situations when the routine and the busyness cause moments of stress and chaos. I was nodding inside my own head. How badly I need the reminder. I’m many things. But a deescalator is not something I’ve ever been labeled. I’m more of a…reactor. Some might say an OVERREACTOR. An ignitor. A catastrophizer. Whatever.

I almost can’t help myself. I’m way outnumbered. I’m old. I’m Type A. And I’m scared of chaos. Also I’m outnumbered. Did I already mention that? So the moment something begins, whether it’s a spat between children, an I-can’t-find-my-belt, an alarm that didn’t go off, a lunch that was forgotten, or wrong-side-of-the-bed tone of voice, I go into Smackdown Mode. I’m gonna squelch it. Fix it. Kill it. Stop it. Conquer it.

But I don’t. Because I stink at that. Mostly I just pump air at the flames and then shed silent tears as I watch those flames destroy everything I love.

The problem is, sometimes a thing can’t be fixed. Sometimes it doesn’t need to be. That’s what I struggle to remember. Maybe it’s an allergy attack that has to be lived with because there’s a big test 2nd period. That allergy attack can’t be fixed quickly. And neither can the emotions that often go along with it. But what would happen if I took a deep breath, let the kid spew a little venom about the gene pool he inherited and then tell him I love him, I’m going to pray for him all day, and it’s going to be ok. I wonder how it might go then. If only there were a way to find out.

Peace. Deescalation. Empathy. Stability. Huh.

I wanted to compile some information from other sources and write a how not to stress about stress kind of blog post. No one needs that more than I do. But I can’t put my heart into it because there are much bigger weights in the world than anything I’ve ever had to face. Things unfolding right now that just make back to school seem silly.

I had a mouth full of Qdoba at lunch today when I saw a friend’s facebook post that her niece had died following a lifelong battle with Loeys-Dietz syndrome. The worst part of that is that lifelong was only 9 years. Scout McCauley died last night following an aortic dissection that her body just couldn’t recover from. She was 9. And amazing. And beautiful. And poetic. And valiant. And very, very brave. Her family is also all of those things. They have faced grave circumstances for 9 years. But they faced them with Scout and because of Scout. Now they are walking an unimaginable road, without Scout. How do you do that? How does anyone do that? I really can’t wrap my head or heart around that one. Another friend posted a tribute to Scout with the following quote:

“I wanted you to see what real courage is… It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

So I can’t really make myself think about school uniforms and alarms tonight. Tonight I’m thinking about Scout. And I’m praying for Scout’s family. And I’m thinking about the definition of true courage. I’m in awe of people who possess it.

Tuesday is the day my kids go back to school. Much of the nation goes back tomorrow. If that’s your circumstance and if things blow up around you, take a deep breath, fix what you can, hug what you can’t, and even if you are licked before you begin, begin anyway and see it through no matter what.

Rest in Jesus, Scout. Thanks for showing us the way home.

If you’d like to donate to the McCauley family, you can do so here.

https://www.gofundme.com/the-mccauley-family?member=1441220&utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=fb_tco_campmgmtbnr_w

On Your Birthday

This morning, I woke up rather leisurely in a queen sized bed in a hotel with my daughter, her friend, and my friend. I knew what today was, but it still surprised me to open Facebook and see it there. Good Morning, Missy, today is Ann Dawson White’s Birthday. Let her know you are thinking of her.

Sigh.

Well, ok. I mean, it is her birthday. And she’s not here.

But it isn’t the first birthday we’ve done without her. And it isn’t the worst one, either. Her last one on Earth, almost a full year before she died, was the worst one for me.

On January 5, 2017, my mother was holed up in John Knox Village rehab, after a hospital stay next door. John Knox is probably a very nice place to live on the assisted side. But the rehab side is a dump. So I was already a little depressed that my mom had to be in that place. The floors and walls had a gray cast to them, like the color of germs. People lined the narrow hallway who seemed to be clinging to life in the harshest of ways. She shared a room with somebody in worse shape than she was.

My mom was in that place for well over a week. She was in there on her 74th birthday. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was that she didn’t care. She didn’t care where she was. And she didn’t care that it was her birthday.

I came as early that day as I could get there. When I arrived, she looked at me slowly and spoke in response to me.

“Happy Birthday, Mom,” I said, sitting down on the edge of a chair near her bed. She didn’t smile or say thank you, so I kept talking. “You’ve been getting a ton of birthday messages on Facebook. You want me to read you some?”

“Yes,” she answered flatly. So I began.

“Happy Birthday, Ann! We have shared many birthdays as special friends. May the trend continue!”

“Happy, happy birthday, dear, sweet Ann! I hope you are feeling better quickly! Miss you.”

“Happy Birthday, dreadnaught friend!”

“Happy Birthday to a very sweet lady! I hope you have a wonderful day!”

“Happy, happy birthday to an amazing woman and such an inspiration to myself and my boys!”

I stopped every now and then and looked at her. She was looking off to the right, toward the curtain barrier between her bed and her neighbor’s. Was she listening? Could she hear me? She wasn’t digesting the messages. There were 80 of them.

“Mom, you got 80 messages for your birthday,” I said.

I wanted her to care. I needed her to still care. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. That was the hardest birthday for me. The following year, on what would have been her 75th, I was able to rejoice that her spirit was no longer trapped in the prison of her very sick mind and body. The same way I can rejoice today.

The last birthday I remember really celebrating was her 70th. 2013. The entire family came out to our farmhouse and ate with us around the dining room table. Mom wasn’t totally herself, as we’d already begun to notice her slipping bit by small bit. But she was mostly herself. Smiling. Laughing at the right moments. Poking fun at herself. We had made a pretty big deal out of her because it was a milestone birthday. When she walked out my front door that night to go home, I knew she was happy. I knew she was properly loved. And I knew that she knew it too.

Facebook told me to let her know I was thinking of her today. Of course I am. I’m thinking of her laughter, which almost always caused a total face collapse. I’m thinking of her fierceness and how many times she went to bat for me. I’m thinking of her pride in me… afro and bad outfits me… buck tooth me… tube socks and canvas sneakers me. And I’m thinking that she spent 74 birthdays getting herself ready to stand in front of God, and helping me get ready, too. There is no question that I’m thinking of her. Of the her she was before disease. The real her.

Happy Birthday, Mom. I’m thinking of you. And I didn’t need Facebook to tell me that. Silly Facebook.